Mind & Body

The 5 Most Bacteria-Ridden Spots in Your Office

What's the first thing you do when you start a new job? Well, first, you probably introduce yourself to your coworkers, and second, you start personalizing your desk area. In reality, though, you first introduce yourself to your coworkers' resident bacteria, and then you start personalizing your desk with your personal bacterial flora. Give it a few months and your microbiota will have gotten cozy with everyone else's — in some places more than others.

(Filthy) Office Space

While bacteria is in the eye of the beholder, it's generally not the best idea to allow strange bacteria to proliferate on your hands and shared surfaces. But perhaps it's not especially surprising that office environments would be so amenable to bacterial life; after all, they're often full of people coming and going. Many of them have kitchens. And then there's the stomach-churning thought of the shared bathrooms. Writing for The Conversation, microbiology lecturer Michael Loughlin was ... kind enough to detail exactly how disgusting the average office is, and where the most thriving breeding grounds of microbial life could be found.

  • Sinks and handles. According to Kimberly-Clark, tests for ATP (a chemical compound exhaled by all living cells) revealed that microwave handles and sink faucets were the worst surfaces of all. Many of them were highly contaminated, including 48 percent of microwaves and 75 percent of sinks.
  • Your desk. The very worst spots might be in the kitchen, but your desk could have a bigger impact. After all, you spend more time there. The average desk has been shown to host 400 times as much bacteria as a toilet seat. Approximately 20,961 per square inch, to be exact. You ... don't eat lunch there, do you?

  • Mugs and cups. Yup, we're back in the kitchen again. Ick. First, the good — make that less-bad — news. According to a 1997 study, as much as 90 percent of office coffee mugs are coated in germs. The truly bad news is that 20 percent of them are contaminated with fecal matter, too.
  • Pens and stationery. As technology develops and the world becomes more paperless, many of the former germ traps aren't quite as potent. Copy machines, fax machines, and printers don't play nearly the role they used to. Still, germs can survive on those surfaces, so watch who you lend your pen to, especially if you happen to chew on it.
  • Your phone. Like the paper-based tech above, many office workers no longer have a desk phone (once the biggest risk point with 25,127 germs per square inch, and regular contact with both the mouth and the ears). Surprisingly, the sanitation of mobile phones is up for some debate, with a University of Arizona study finding them to be much dirtier than a toilet and a German study finding them to be much cleaner.

Extreme Micromanagement

In an effort to come up with a more detailed portrait of bacterial environments inside office settings, a group of researchers from San Diego State University and University of Arizona, Tucson examined 90 different offices — 30 in San Francisco, 30 in New York, and 30 in Tucson. With such a broad pool of data, they were able to find some underlying themes in bacterial hotspots that could help you keep it clean as you navigate your workplace.

In big-picture terms, the researchers found that while the microbial ecosystems of San Francisco and New York offices were roughly the same, the hot, dry environment of Tucson had a major impact on the bacterial life in its offices. On an office-by-office level, the team found that, across the board, men's workspaces were more heavily contaminated than women's. They have a few suggestions as to why. First, men are generally larger, and thus may shed more skin cells and microbial hitchhikers. Second, it's well documented that men carry more bacteria than women do, so it just makes sense that more bacteria would thrive on a man's desk. The lesson? Maybe women should strive to only borrow and lend from other women — and men? We should all probably be washing our hands more.

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Maybe we shouldn't be so worried about microbes. In "I Contain Multitudes" (free with your Audible trial membership), Ed Yong dives to the deep ocean and the deep intestine to find the microscopic world hiding all around us. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

How Long Should I Wash My Hands?

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 31, 2018

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